Filtering by label


GitLab has labels that can be assigned to issues, merge requests, and epics. Labels on those objects are a many-to-many relation through the polymorphic label_links table.

To filter these objects by multiple labels - for instance, ‘all open issues with the label ~Plan and the label ~backend’ - we generate a query containing a GROUP BY clause. In a simple form, this looks like:

    INNER JOIN label_links ON label_links.target_id =
        AND label_links.target_type = 'Issue'
    INNER JOIN labels ON = label_links.label_id
    issues.project_id = 13083
    AND (issues.state IN ('opened'))
    AND labels.title IN ('Plan',
HAVING (COUNT(DISTINCT labels.title) = 2)
    issues.updated_at DESC, DESC

In particular, note that:

  1. We GROUP BY so that we can …
  2. Use the HAVING (COUNT(DISTINCT labels.title) = 2) condition to ensure that all matched issues have both labels.

This is more complicated than is ideal. It makes the query construction more prone to errors (such as issue #15557).


Attempt A1: use multiple subqueries with WHERE EXISTS

In issue #37137 and its associated merge request, we tried to replace the GROUP BY with multiple uses of WHERE EXISTS. For the example above, this would give:

            INNER JOIN labels ON = label_links.label_id
            labels.title = 'Plan'
            AND target_type = 'Issue'
            AND target_id =
            INNER JOIN labels ON = label_links.label_id
            labels.title = 'backend'
            AND target_type = 'Issue'
            AND target_id =

While this worked without schema changes, and did improve readability somewhat, it did not improve query performance.

Attempt A2: use label IDs in the WHERE EXISTS clause

In merge request #34503, we followed a similar approach to A1. But this time, we did a separate query to fetch the IDs of the labels used in the filter so that we avoid the JOIN in the EXISTS clause and filter directly by label_links.label_id. We also added a new index on label_links for the target_id, label_id, and target_type columns to speed up this query.

Finding the label IDs wasn’t straightforward because there could be multiple labels with the same title within a single root namespace. We solved this by grouping the label IDs by title and then using the array of IDs in the EXISTS clauses.

This resulted in a significant performance improvement. However, this optimization could not be applied to the dashboard pages where we do not have a project or group context. We could not easily search for the label IDs here because that would mean searching across all projects and groups that the user has access to.

Attempt B: Denormalize using an array column

We discussed denormalizing the label_links table for querying in issue #49651, with two options: label IDs and titles.

We can think of both of those as array columns on issues, merge_requests, and epics: issues.label_ids would be an array column of label IDs, and issues.label_titles would be an array of label titles.

These array columns can be complemented with GIN indexes to improve matching.

Attempt B1: store label IDs for each object

This has some strong advantages over titles:

  1. Unless a label is deleted, or a project is moved, we never need to bulk-update the denormalized column.
  2. It uses less storage than the titles.

Unfortunately, our application design makes this hard. If we were able to query just by label ID easily, we wouldn’t need the INNER JOIN labels in the initial query at the start of this document. GitLab allows users to filter by label title across projects and even across groups, so a filter by the label ~Plan may include labels with multiple distinct IDs.

We do not want users to have to know about the different IDs, which means that given this data set:

Project ~Plan label ID ~backend label ID
A 11 12
B 21 22
C 31 32

We would need something like:

    label_ids @> ARRAY[11, 12]
    OR label_ids @> ARRAY[21, 22]
    OR label_ids @> ARRAY[31, 32]

This can get even more complicated when we consider that in some cases, there might be two ~backend labels - with different IDs - that could apply to the same object, so the number of combinations would balloon further.

Attempt B2: store label titles for each object

From the perspective of updating the object, this is the worst option. We have to bulk update the objects when:

  1. The objects are moved from one project to another.
  2. The project is moved from one group to another.
  3. The label is renamed.
  4. The label is deleted.

It also uses much more storage. Querying is simple, though:

    label_titles @> ARRAY['Plan', 'backend']

And our tests in issue #49651 showed that this could be fast.

However, at present, the disadvantages outweigh the advantages.


We found a method A2 that does not need denormalization and improves the query performance significantly. This did not apply to all cases, but we were able to apply method A1 to the rest of the cases so that we remove the GROUP BY and HAVING clauses in all scenarios.

This simplified the query and improved the performance in the most common cases.